The top Russian and American diplomats pledged to seek better relations and ease tensions, even as they diverged sharply on issues ranging from Iran and Venezuela to alleged Kremlin meddling in U.S. elections.
After talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Tuesday, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said the U.S. “fundamentally doesn’t want war with Iran” as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned of the risk of being pulled into a spiral of crisis over the Islamic Republic. Pompeo said he warned Russia against meddling in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. Lavrov rejected accusations of interference as “complete fiction.”
“We agreed on the importance of restoring channels of communications that had recently been frozen,” Lavrov said at their joint news conference. “I hope that after the publication of the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, passions on the other side of the ocean will subside and it will be possible finally to move forward toward more constructive interaction.”
The pair discussed a possible meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Japan next month, after the President said Monday that he would see the Kremlin leader. Putin is willing to meet Trump, but here’s been no official invitation so far, Lavrov said.
The two sides described the talks as “frank,” saying that they wanted to improve relations strained for years over the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine and more recently over strategic arms control and U.S. efforts to oust Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro. Pompeo, on his first visit to Russia as the top U.S. diplomat, said the Trump administration is committed to improving ties and wants to work together where the two countries have what he called “overlapping interests.”
“I’m here today because President Trump is committed to improving this relationship,” he told Lavrov at the start of their meeting.
“It’s not destined that we’re adversaries on every issue.”
Pompeo, who’s also due to meet Putin later on Tuesday before returning to Washington, said he and Lavrov discussed North Korea’s nuclear program. Lavrov said they agreed to start arms-control consultations including on a possible extension of the New Start nuclear treaty that’s due to expire in 2021. Lavrov also said there may be hope for some agreement on Iran that would win backing by both Russia and the U.S., after Trump pulled out of the international accord on Tehran’s nuclear program.
They offered few details, however, about the areas where they could improve relations, in contrast to the wide range of differences they outlined.
There’s “no pivot in sight, no breakthrough in the offing,” Dmitri Trenin, Moscow Carnegie Center director, wrote on Twitter before the news conference. “Contacts will continue, but normalization will be long in coming.”
Before meeting Pompeo, Putin flew to a flight test airbase in the southern Astrakhan region escorted by six of Russia’s latest Su-57 stealth fighter jets to inspect new hypersonic weapons he’s touted as invulnerable to U.S. defenses. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was a scheduled inspection visit and dismissed as “conspiracy theories” suggestions that it was a signal to Washington, the state-run Tass news service reported.
Trump stunned Russian officials in November by scrapping a meeting with Putin at last year’s G-20 summit in Argentina with a Twitter announcement the day before the talks, blaming tensions over Russia’s capture of Ukrainian sailors. That followed the cancellation of talks planned for Paris during Nov. 11 commemorations for the centenary of the end of World War I.
It’s not clear what’s changed since then. At the time, Trump cited Russia’s failure to release Ukrainian ships and sailors seized during clashes in the Kerch Strait near Crimea as the reason for his refusal to meet Putin. The sailors remain in detention as Russia continues plans to prosecute them, said Nikolai Polozov, who’s leading their defense team.